It’s sounding more and more like Shohei Otani will come over to MLB after this season

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
It’s both Otani and Ohtani. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

Through seven games this season, it couldn’t be any more obvious the Yankees have some work to do to build a pitching staff going forward. Even while acknowledging Masahiro Tanaka is not really this bad, the fact is he can opt-out after the season, and who knows what happens after that. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will be free agents too. The kids are promising but unproven.

The most interesting name on the free agent pitching market for the foreseeable future will be Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani, the 22-year-old who throws 100 mph when he pitches and socks dingers when he doesn’t. Otani recently suffered a thigh strain running out a ground ball and will miss six weeks, though that shouldn’t affect his stock going forward. Muscle pulls happen. It just means scouts won’t be able to see him for a few weeks.

Otani appeared on 60 Minutes this past weekend, and while he stopped short of saying he will come over to MLB this offseason, he did say, “Personally, I don’t care how much I get paid, or how much less I get paid, because of this,” which seemed to acknowledge baseball’s silly international hard cap. Because he is under 25, Otani is subject to the hard cap, which limits each team’s annual international spending to $4.75M to $5.75M.

The (Ham) Fighters, for what it’s worth, will post Otani whenever he decides to come over to MLB, according to Jon Wertheim. From Wertheim:

While neither party will confirm the particulars, the team clearly seems to have made an agreement with the Ohtani family: When Shohei was ready to declare yosh ganbarimasu (“I’m gonna go for it”), the Fighters would not stand in his way. Rather, they would agree to “post” him, taking the negotiated fee from a major league team (currently $20 million), relinquishing his rights and wishing him well.

Their agreement reportedly dates back a while. Otani flirted with the idea of coming over to MLB as an 18-year-old out of high school a few years ago a la Junichi Tazawa, but the (Ham) Fighters convinced him to stay and agreed to post him for MLB clubs when the time comes. This will be his fifth season in Japan, and I can’t imagine he wants to stay much longer. He won a championship and was named MVP last year. What’s left to accomplish?

The natural reaction is to think once Otani decides to come over — and it sure sounds like it could happen this offseason — the Yankees should go after him hard because pitchers this young and this talented are hard to find. The Yankees are in the middle of a youth movement and Otani would fit right in as the pitching center piece. A few problems with that though:

  1. The hard cap evens the playing field. The Yankees can only offer Otani whatever they have in international money, which is $4.75M. That’s assuming they don’t sign any Latin American players on July 2nd, and supposedly the club already has some agreements in place. The Yankees can’t flex their financial muscle and blow everyone away with an offer.
  2. Does he want to hit? I’m guessing yes. So the real question is will the Yankees let him hit? Otani’s decision could very well come down to a team agreeing to let him hit and pitch. Start every fifth day and then DH a few times between starts. That’s risky, man. Imagine losing your ace because he gets hit by a pitch or pulls a muscle running the bases, which is exactly what happened with this recently thigh injury.
  3. Otani is said to prefer the West Coast. Supposedly Otani prefers the West Coast because it’s closer to home, though it’s unclear how much of a priority that really is for him. Tanaka was said to prefer the West Coast too, remember. Just something to keep in mind.

As much as the Yankees could use a young power starter like Otani to continue their youth movement, this isn’t a matter of simply wanting him and bidding. The international hard cap levels the playing field, and Otani’s potential preferences of the West Coast and being allowed to hit complicate things. In the past, the Yankees could up the ante and pay more to lure players. They can’t do that in this situation.

I’m really curious to see how teams approach the July 2nd international signing period. Do they do nothing and save their bonus pool money in hopes Otani is posted? That’s really risky. You could end up with no international talent during the 2017-18 signing period — or at least no high-end talent — and no Otani either. Keep in mind several big market teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, Astros, and Cardinals are basically out on Otani. They’re limited to the $300,000 bonus maximum this coming offseason due to past international spending.

The Yankees can offer Otani the opportunity to be a part-time designated hitter — he’s a lefty with pull power! — and hey, playing for the Yankees comes with some pretty great endorsement opportunities. That’s pretty much the only thing that separates them from the pack now. The signing bonus playing field is level. I’d love to see the Yankees get Otani — or a similar high-end young starter — though the more time that passes, the more I feel like things stack up against them.

Game Eight: Montgomery’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The fifth starter competition is officially over, just a little earlier than everyone expected. The Yankees were planning to wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, but after Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia had to work hard in their starts over the weekend, the club decided to give them an extra day. Jordan Montgomery arrives today as the fifth starter. It will be his MLB debut.

Montgomery wasn’t exactly a prime contender for the fifth starter’s spot in Spring Training, but he outpitched everyone ahead of him in the pecking order, which is why he’s getting a shot today. The Yankees still have Chad Green and Luis Cessa in Triple-A, plus Bryan Mitchell is in the bullpen, so Montgomery will have to pitch well to keep this rotation spot. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 1B Chris Carter
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. C Kyle Higashioka
  9. SS Pete Kozma
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

Not the best weather in the Bronx this afternoon. It rained on and off for much of the morning, though that’s cleared out now. It’s still cloudy and windy though. This afternoon’s game will begin at 1pm ET — I have no idea why this is a 1pm ET start, it’s not a getaway day for either team — and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Greg Bird (ankle, flu) is doing much better. He’s out of the lineup today because the Rays are starting a left-hander, not because he’s still hurting or sick … Didi Gregorius (shoulder) started taking swings recently, so he’s progressing with his rehab … James Kaprielian (elbow) had his visit with Dr. Neal ElAttrache yesterday. Still no update though.

Roster Move: To get Montgomery on the 40-man roster, the Yankees have … done nothing yet. Still no announcement. They’re waiting until the last minute, apparently. designated Johnny Barbato for assignment, the team announced. Chasen Shreve was sent down Monday to get Montgomery on the 25-man roster.

Thoughts following yet another early season off-day

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees and Rays will resume their three-game series with the middle game this afternoon. Assuming the weather cooperates, that is. It should. When I checked the forecast last night, it said it would rain in the morning and dry up by game time. Anyway, here are a few early season thoughts.

1. Later today left-hander Jordan Montgomery will make his first big league start and I wonder whether Joe Girardi will pair him with catcher Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka caught Montgomery for much of last season with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, so there’s familiarity there, plus the Rays are starting left-hander Blake Snell. Higashioka is a right-handed batter with some pop. Seems like a good way to get him his first start, right? Pair him with a pitcher he knows and give him the platoon advantage at the plate. My hunch is Girardi will stick with Austin Romine behind the plate while Gary Sanchez is out, but Higashioka is going to have to start once in a while, and this afternoon’s game seems like the perfect time to give him his first start.  A lot will be working in his favor, both on the offensive side and defensive side of the ball.

2. Prior to Monday’s game Girardi said he won’t necessarily stick with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury hitting one-two while Sanchez is out, though those two are playing well right now, and my guess is Girardi will keep them together atop the lineup as long they’re both hitting. We’ve seen them both get hot at the same time in the past — the first few weeks of the 2015 season come to mind — and when it happens, they can carry the offense. That means Greg Bird won’t hit third whenever he returns because there’s basically no chance Girardi will stack three lefties at the top of the lineup. Matt Holliday third and Bird in the cleanup spot? Or maybe drop Bird to fifth or sixth given his sluggish start? Regardless of what happens with Bird, I don’t think Girardi ever wanted to move Ellsbury down in the lineup, and now that both he and Gardner are playing well, I think it gives Girardi an accuse to bat them one-two again. We’ll see what happens.

3. The Yankees seem to be giving Jonathan Holder every opportunity to prove his worth in middle relief. He’s appeared in four of seven games so far, and Girardi has used Holder in all sorts of situations. Here are the situations Holder has been brought into in those four appearances:

  • April 2nd: Start of the seventh inning down five.
  • April 4th: Start of the eighth inning with a five-run lead.
  • April 7th: Start of the sixth inning with a one-run lead.
  • April 8th: Start of the eighth inning down one.

In that April 7th game, the first batter Holder faced was Mark Trumbo, a player who was very capable of tying the game with one swing. (Trumbo struck out.) The Yankees clearly like Holder. They wouldn’t have called him up last September if they didn’t. Holder is not really as good as his 2016 minor league numbers would lead you to believe — he threw 65.1 innings with a 1.65 ERA (1.30 FIP) and 42.4% strikeouts and 2.9% walks at three levels last year — but he definitely has a chance to be a big league reliever. The Yankees are in position to ease Holder into things. They have Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances for the late innings, and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren are capable third and fourth pieces. Girardi can pick and choose his spots with Holder while still getting him plenty of work, and that’s exactly what has happened so far.

4. Are you enjoying Holliday so far? I sure am. That dude is a total pro at the plate. He’s almost the perfect middle of the order veteran for a team that is transitioning to youth like the Yankees. He grinds out at-bats, takes his walks, hits to all fields, hits for power … what’s not to like? Holliday sets a good example for the young players and, in the grand scheme of things, helping the kids is more important than whatever he contributes at the plate this season. As productive as Carlos Beltran was last season, he was mostly a dead pull hitter who rarely walked (5.7% walks before the trade), and the Yankees needed to get away from that profile. Holliday will make a pitcher work and he’s not easy to defend. It’s refreshing. The season is still very young, but it’s tough not to impressed with what he’s bringing to the table as the designated hitter.

Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)
Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)

5. Speaking of the designated hitter, the Yankees have an interleague series coming up soon. They’ll be in Pittsburgh next weekend, April 21st to 23rd. I wonder what that will do to the lineup? Is Holliday going to sit, or will Girardi run him out there in left field for a few innings each night to make sure he gets three at-bats? Left field at PNC Park is not small. It’s one of the most spacious left fields in baseball. I want Gardner out there running fly balls down. It’s so ridiculously early in the season that I say sit Holliday next weekend and try to get by without the big bat in the lineup. The last thing the Yankees want is Holliday to pull a hamstring or something running after a fly ball, you know? Maybe if this were September and the Yankees were in a postseason race, I’d feel differently. This early in the season though? Forget it. Use Holliday to pinch-hit that weekend and nothing more.

6. Luis Severino threw 14 changeups out of 89 total pitches in his start last week — disclaimer: the Trackman system has had some pitch classification issues early on — which is a pretty good ratio considering the Orioles only had three left-handed batters in the lineup. More than anything, I thought Severino was working very quickly and throwing with a lot of conviction. It looked like he had a reliever’s mentality while working as a starter. Get the ball and throw it. Four runs in five innings isn’t great — the two-out walk to the un-walk-able Adam Jones that set up the Manny Machado three-run home run was Severino’s biggest mistake of the night — but I thought Severino looked better in that start than he did in any start last season. We’ll see how he looks going forward and how much he uses his changeup. I’d say I am cautiously optimistic at best right now. One or two starts isn’t enough to win me over.

7. Am I the only one who doesn’t care one bit about the New Era logo on the side of the hats? When it was first announced, I hated the idea. How could they desecrate the iconic interlocking NY hat??? Now that it’s been a few games, I hardly even notice it’s there. Meh. I wonder if the same thing will happen when the Under Armour logo makes its way onto the front of all jerseys in a few years. (MLB has announced Under Armour will replace Majestic as the league’s official uniform provider in 2020.) It’s only a matter of time until we see advertisements on jerseys. You know that, right? That’s an untapped revenue stream MLB and the MLBPA won’t sit on much longer. As long as it’s done tastefully and MLB jerseys don’t look like NASCAR cars, I’ll live. The thought of the New Era logo on hats bothered me. Now that I see it in action game after game, it’s no big deal. I’m guessing I’ll have the same reaction with the Under Armour logo and the inevitable jersey advertisements that are coming.

DotF: Mateo steals fifth base, makes first start in center field

Two quick notes:

  • There have been some rumors going around that LHP Justus Sheffield and RHP Chance Adams are hurt, but they’re not. Not sure where that all started. Sheffield is pitching tomorrow and Adams is pitching Thursday, both for Double-A Trenton, according to Matt Kardos. Sheffield’s first start was pushed back by the rainouts late last week.
  • The Yankees have released 1B Connor Spencer, according to Matt Eddy. He was their eighth round pick in 2014. Spencer hit .303/.368/.387 in parts of three minor league seasons. Between college and pro ball, he hit six home runs in 368 games from 2012-16. A first baseman needs a little more pop than that.

Triple-A Scranton (6-0 loss to Lehigh Valley)

  • DH Mason Williams: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K — final game in the organization? the Yankees need to clear a 40-man roster spot for LHP Jordan Montgomery tomorrow
  • RF Clint Frazier: 1-3, 1 BB — Shane Hennigan says he took too wide a turn around first base on the single and was thrown out before he could get back to the bag
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 1-4, 2 K — off to a 3-for-20 (.150) start
  • LF Mark Payton: 3-4, 1 2B, 1 K, 1 E (throwing)
  • RHP Chad Green: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 4/3 GB/FB — 63 of 95 pitches were strikes (66%) … he was supposed to start today for Double-A Trenton, but once Montgomery got called up to MLB, the Yankees put him here

[Read more…]

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Once again, the Yankees had an off-day today. I’m getting sick of off-days. This is the fourth off-day in the last eleven days. Thankfully the daily grind begins in earnest tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees begin a stretch of 18 games in 20 days. Twelve of those 18 games are at home too. Good chance to get comfy in Yankee Stadium and string together some wins, I’d say.

This is the open thread for the evening. The Mets are playing, ESPN is showing the Cardinals and Nationals, and MLB Network will have a regional West Coast game later tonight. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Jordan Montgomery’s big chance

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this season, the Yankees have changed their pitching plans. Rather than wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, Joe Girardi announced Jordan Montgomery will be called up to start Wednesday’s game, giving Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia an extra day to rest. They both worked hard in their starts over the weekend and the Yankees don’t want to push them too much, too soon.

The 24-year-old Montgomery will be making his MLB debut Wednesday after opening eyes in Spring Training. He wasn’t an unknown going into camp — at least not among the RAB faithful! — but he certainly wasn’t first in line for a rotation spot. Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green all made starts for the Yankees last year and were understandably considered the favorites.

Montgomery out-pitched all those guys in Spring Training, including Severino, who was named the fourth starter. He did enough to put himself in position for an early call-up — there’s a pretty good chance Montgomery would have been in the Opening Day rotation had the Yankees needed their fifth starter right out of the gate — and tomorrow afternoon he’ll make his first big league start. That’s exciting. And, needless to say, a huge opportunity for Montgomery, for a few reasons.

1. The Yankees need short-term rotation help. It will be Montgomery’s first MLB start! That’s always huge. Get a start, and you have a chance to impress and remain in the rotation. The Yankees can’t feel too comfortable with their current rotation situation, I imagine, and Montgomery has a chance to ease those concerns somewhat. The Yankees are the land of opportunity right now. They’re serious about this youth movement, so if you’re a young player and show you can help, they’ll make room for you. A job is there for the taking for Montgomery.

2. The Yankees need long-term rotation help too. This isn’t just about this season either. Michael Pineda and Sabathia will both become free agents after the season and Tanaka can opt-out too. None of the young guys have established themselves as long-term building blocks yet. I don’t think anyone expects Montgomery to be a top of the rotation starter or anything like that, but he has a chance to be a solid mid-rotation innings guy, and the Yankees will sign up for that right now. This is a chance to win a rotation spot now and for the next six years too.

3. The other guys are breathing down his neck. The rotation may be shaky right now, but the Yankees do have some depth. Severino is in the rotation and Mitchell is in the bullpen — so is Adam Warren, who could start if necessary — but Green and Cessa are waiting in Triple-A. Should Montgomery slip up at some point, the Yankees won’t hesitate to make a change. The fifth starter’s competition was never confined to Spring Training. It’s ongoing. Montgomery is getting the first chance to show what he can do as the fifth starter and he’ll have to pitch well to keep the job.

* * *

Last season Montgomery threw 152 total innings between Double-A and Triple-A, during which he had a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP). He spent three years in the rotation for a major college program, he throws five pitches and locates, and he hasn’t missed a start dating back to high school. Montgomery is as close to ready as a pitching prospect can get, and the Yankees won’t let a 40-man roster crunch stand in his way. There’s no sense in keeping him in Triple-A when he could help you at the MLB level, you know?

Tomorrow afternoon’s start is as much about the rotation going forward as it is giving Tanaka and Sabathia an extra day to rest. The Yankees are going with Montgomery over Cessa and Green (and Mitchell and Warren) because they think he’s is best able to help them win right now. It’s that simple. That chance to help the Yankees win now is also an opportunity for Montgomery to earn a rotation spot for the future. It’s something the other rotation candidates were unable to do last year.

The Four-Week Starting Catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Shortly after Monday’s 8-1 drubbing of the Rays, the Yankees announced that Gary Sanchez would miss roughly four weeks with a strained brachialis muscle. All things considered, that isn’t terrible news – I was all but certain that he tore something on Saturday, given his reaction and the speed with which he was put on the disabled list, and visions of Greg Bird were dancing in my head. Comparatively speaking, Sanchez sitting out until May 8 or so is positively fantastic news.

In the interim, however, the Yankees lineup will be unquestionably weaker. Sanchez was expected to be the team’s best hitter heading into the season, and the drop-off from him to Austin Romine is larger than any other gap between starter and back-up on this roster. Romine is perfectly adequate as a reserve, but his limitations as a hitter become more glaring as he garners more plate appearances, and his defense is more good than great.

That being said, perhaps we should be talking about the drop-off from Sanchez to Kyle Higashioka instead. The 26-year-old was officially called-up on Sunday, and made his big league debut in the 9th inning of the home opener, catching the last three outs of the game. Joe Girardi has been noncommittal about the team’s plans, hinting at the nebulous ‘shared duty,’ so the playing time split appears to be up in the air.

How should the Yankees handle it?

The Case for Romine

Romine has played 123 games behind the plate in the Majors, and has been a solid presence defensively. He throws out would-be basestealers at a roughly league-average rate, and his pitch framing abilities are passable at worst (0.7 framing runs in his career). The deeper you dig into the numbers, the more average he seems – and that’s just fine. It’s not nearly as good as Sanchez, but he’s not hurting the team behind the dish, either.

That modicum of defensive value is just about all that you’ll get from Romine, though. He slashed .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) last year, and has hit .219/.256/.324 (53 wRC+) in his career. And while he’s only had 371 PA at this level, it’s difficult to envision him getting much better, given his age (28) and minor league numbers (.251/.307/.371 in 811 PA at Triple-A). Those aren’t terrible numbers for a back-up catcher, but it represents a severe drop-off from Sanchez, and a sizable dip from the average catcher (87 wRC+ for the position in 2016).

It is possible that we should look into how Romine handles pitchers, though. Much was said on Monday about how beautifully he worked with Michael Pineda, and there could be something to that. After all, Big Mike was at his best when he pitched to Romine last year:

pineda

There are several problems in working with a sample size such as this, as it ignores the ballpark and the quality of the competition (among other things), but it jibes with Romine’s reputation of knowing how to handle the pitching staff. And it isn’t just Pineda, either – Masahiro Tanaka posted better strikeout, walk, and home run rates while throwing to Romine. CC Sabathia had an unsightly 6.85 ERA with Romine as his battery mate, but he also managed 23 strikeouts against just 4 BB in 23.2 IP, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s difficult to draw a clear-cut point about Romine’s work with the pitching staff, given the aforementioned sample sizes and sampling issues in general, but there’s a certain level of certainty that comes with him. That certainty may only be that he won’t actively hurt the team – but it’s something to cling to.

The Case for Higashioka

Higashioka hit .293/.355/.509 (136 wRC+) in 256 PA at Double-A last year, and .250/.306/.514 (131 wRC+) in 160 PA at Triple-A. That level of offense is unknown to Romine at any level of professional baseball, and it came in Higashioka’s first healthy season … ever, basically. The 26-year-old missed time every year from 2012 through 2015, with a litany of ailments and injuries, including Tommy John Surgery in 2013. It’s been a long road to the show.

While 2016 represented a heretofore unknown level of production for Higashioka, there are reasons beyond the injuries to suspect that it wasn’t a simple fluke. He has long drawn praise for owning a solid hit tool and above-average raw power, and he has always maintained strong contact rates in the minors (16.4 K% across all levels). He’s known as an aggressive hitter, and that shone through at Triple-A last year – but a career 8.1% walk rate isn’t too shabby, and he managed a 10.2% walk rate at Double-A prior to his promotion. The injuries hindered his development arc significantly, and his production last year may exaggerate his offensive potential, but the bat has always been Higashioka’s calling card.

Higashioka looked comfortable in Spring Training this year, as well, slashing .296/.406/.630 in 32 PA. There were rumblings that he had earned himself the back-up job, given all that had happened since the beginning of 2016, but Romine’s lack of options and the desire for Higashioka to continue to develop (more on that in a bit) made the team’s decision fairly easy.

Analyzing Higashioka’s defense is a bit tricky, given his lack of experience at the highest level. Scouting reports credit him for moving well behind the plate, and ding him for a weak throwing arm (and this was even before TJS). Baseball Prospectus credits Higashioka for 16.3 framing runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, which is excellent, and he threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, which is right around average. Minor league defensive numbers are a bit shaky, but it seems reasonable to say that he’s at least an average-ish defender.

The key to all of this, however, might just be development. Higashioka is the team’s back-up of the future; that doesn’t sound sexy, but it could mean a larger role if the team gives Sanchez more time at DH to keep him healthy while keeping his bat in the lineup. Sitting on the bench for four weeks isn’t going to do much to prepare Higashioka for that role, nor is it going to give the Yankees a great idea as to what he can do.


In my mind, the decision should be relatively easy for the Yankees – Higashioka should be playing everyday, regardless of the level. If he’s going to be on the big league roster for the next four weeks, he should start the majority of those games. It may sound weird to talk about developing a 26-year-old, and for a back-up role at that, but it makes more sense than calling him up to sit behind a known replacement-level commodity.